Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Exodus 1:8-2:10+Psalm 124+Romans 12:1-8+Matthew 16:13-20

On Tuesday of this week, our country marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote. Of course, this guarantee was not available to all women, as Black women particularly continued to be disenfranchised through poll taxes and literacy and citizenship tests until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Of the many women who were recognized and lauded for their activism around women’s suffrage were well known names like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. There is, of course, a long list of others and an equally long list of Black women whose tireless efforts often butted up against the wills of powerful white women. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary McLeod Bethune, and so many more.

These women were all unrelenting in their efforts to raise up women’s issues which for so long had been subject to the decisions of men. Throughout the bible, especially these early stories in the Hebrew scriptures, women often have no names and are of interest only in their procreative abilities to populate the land and provide male heirs. There are exceptions, of course. Eve was co-created with Adam in the beginning. Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, was nobody’s fool. Hagar was the first to name God. There are the later prophets and judges like Deborah and Judith. And in this introduction to the Exodus story, we have the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.

When last we saw Joseph, his family had come to Egypt to escape the famine and were granted land to work under pharaoh’s protection. Jacob the Patriarch died, and his body was returned to Canaan by Joseph and an Egyptian escort, granting honor and privilege to this foreigner in the land of Egypt. At the end of Genesis, Joseph, too, dies, and asks that, when the people return home, his bones will go with them to be buried.

This morning’s reading begins, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus1:8), and what you should imagine when you hear that is the Law & Order sound effect: dun-dun. This new pharaoh fears the Israelites because they are growing so large in number, which, come to think of it, is a complaint a lot of people still make against outsiders, immigrants, and refugees.

So this king tries to suppress the birth rate by working them harder and oppressing them more, and it just doesn’t work. They keep having babies. Then the king decides to get the midwives to do his dirty work, to kill all the male babies at birth. And here we get two of the most wonderful characters in scripture, Shiphrah and Puah. Midwives. They are not about to do what pharaoh asks, so they make up this great excuse that Hebrew women are just too good at childbearing and have the babies fast, before the midwives arrive.

Do you have any idea what kind of risk that put them under? These two women lied to the most powerful man in the world at that time, refusing to do his bidding. In French, a midwife is known as a sage-femme, a wise woman. Wise, true, and more than a little bit fearless. God blessed them for their courage, granting them families of their own.

Pharaoh, frustrated, tried a more direct route and ordered that the newborn boys just be tossed into the Nile River. We have no idea how many mothers or others actually did that, but one young Levite woman hid her son for a few months before placing him in a reed basket and setting him afloat on the river where he is found by, of course, pharaoh’s daughter. And thus begins the Moses narrative, the great story of the Exodus, made possible, in part, by two seemingly insignificant women with names mostly forgotten.

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Jesus wants to know what names people have for him. He and his friends continue to try to get a break from the crowds, this time heading north of Galilee to the area of Caesarea Philippi. It is significant that he poses the question, “Who do the people say that I am” here where a pagan cult and shrine to the god Pan had been replaced with shrines to Caesar. The statue and temple towered over the valley below, so it is very likely that our ragtag band of disciples and their leader are visually confronted with the greatest power in the world in their time. And Jesus wants to know what’s being said about him.

It’s almost comical that this question and answer session is happening in the shadow of Caesarea Philippi, a city named for Augustus and Herod the Great’s son Philip, ruler of that region of the empire. Everybody knew who these people were. There would have been no reason to even ask. But Jesus? Who is he?

Is he one of the prophets, or John the Baptist come back to life? No. With all the might of empire staring them in the face, Peter blurts out, “You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). It may not seem so obvious to us, but Augustus was the living God. Tiberias was the living God. Pan was the god worshipped here before that and Baal before that. Peter is denying all of it. You, Jesus, are the one. Not them. Not the pagan gods or Roman Caesars, not the powerful, but the One who wanders around pointing out the futility of earthly wealth and power. In God’s reign which Jesus came to proclaim, the mighty get cast down from the thrones and the rich sent away empty.

Jesus came to lift up the lowly ones, the nameless ones, the ones whose lives were valued as nothing. And that is why they came to him, followed him wherever he went, just for a chance to see, to hear, to be touched, to be fed, to be healed. They could not get enough of this unlikely messiah who was not perched up on a high pedestal, apart from the people. He was with them. He was one of them.

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The Torah, the first five books of the bible, is made up of a series of scrolls. We may call them “books” with proper names, but in Jewish tradition, each scroll is called by the words with which it begins. Genesis is known as בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (bereshit), “in the beginning.” Deuteronomy is דְּבָרִ֗ים (debarim) which means “words” for “These are the words Moses spoke.” Exodus is שְׁמוֹת֙ (shemot), “names,” because the first sentence in Exodus is “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…”

In this case, it is only the men who receive names, but later, we read about Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam and Zipporah. Interestingly, pharaoh’s daughter is not given a name. Names are important. It is a word that tells the world who we are. It goes on our bassinet when we are born and our tombstone when we die. To have a name is to be known and remembered.

Shiphrah and Puah. Ruth and Naomi. Esther. Susanna. Mary and Joseph. Peter, James, and John. The Messiah. The Christ. Jesus. And all of us who claim to follow him are given a name in our baptism that calls us beloved, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own.

We may not remember the name of every woman who fought for the right to vote or who struggled to gain equal rights for women. But they had names worthy of remembering, just as Shiphrah and Puah did. “Say her name” has become the refrain of those who amplify the incidence of violence against Black women, most of which goes unnoticed and unprosecuted. To “say her name” is to affirm her dignity, her life, her value as a human being.

As I read about and watched and listened this week to the stories of all those women whose work and effort helped make it possible that I would stand here as a priest in God’s Church, I give thanks for all of them, those whose names I know and those I don’t, and I pray to God to do better about lifting up those whose names are all but forgotten. And today, I’m beginning with two Hebrew midwives who helped undermine an empire and unleash the liberation of a people.

ASEPSermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas